Saturday, July 02, 2016

Plastic shopping bags in France are now history

A ban on plastic bags distributed at cashiers in French shops came into force Friday, as the country makes the environmentally-friendly shift to recyclable and reusable biodegradable bags.

The measure came into effect July 1 and was passed as part of a 2015 energy bill. It bans plastic bags thinner than 50 micrometres from being distributed at cashiers regardless of volume, and regardless of whether or not the retailer charges customers for the bag.

Bakeries, butcher shops, grocery stores and pharmacies of all sizes, in addition to markets and supermarkets, will be obliged to enforce the ban.

Five billion plastic bags are handed out every year in France, while another 12 billion are used in the produce section of stores. A ban against plastic bags used for produce will go into effect January 2017.

‘Real chemical poisons’

Each of those 17 billion plastic bags takes several hundred years to biodegrade.

They are particularly hazardous to marine animals, which can often ingest the bags. According to the French environment ministry, 94 percent of birds in the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs, as do 86 percent of marine turtles.

“From the 300 million tonnes of plastic that are produced every year, about 10 percent ... go into the oceans,” Francis Vallat, president of the environmental group Expédition 7e Continent, told FRANCE 24. “Many are very small [pieces] of nano-plastic ... They can transmit some real chemical poisons.”

Vallat pointed out that poisonous plastics ultimately endanger human life: “If life in the oceans is under threat then we shall all die. The oceans today produce 60 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and absorb more than 20 percent of all the toxic gases. It is the main regulator – more than all the forests.”

Cornstarch bags

The only bags permitted by the new law will be “bio-sourced” bags, which are made of a blend of plastic and cornstarch or potato starch. If composted by consumers, these bags will decompose in water and in CO2.

The ban will create increased prices for the consumer. The cost of a bio-sourced bag is a few cents, compared to half a cent for a plastic bag.

But most French consumers have had time to get used to the change, as large retailers over the past ten years have significantly lowered the number of bags distributed free at cashiers. Many stores have begun charging for bags or offering reusable bags instead.

The new bags could present an opportunity for French manufacturers, who currently produce only 2.6 billion of the 17 billion plastic bags distributed in French stores each year. Eighty percent are imported, mostly from Asia. Several French manufacturers are already developing the new type of bag, which could increase their market share.

Environment Minister Ségolène Royal said: “The development of these new bio-sourced plastics will create 3,000 jobs in France."

The plastic bag ban is part of a weekend full of new environmental efforts in France. The city of Paris put into effect Friday a prohibition on cars registered before 1997, in an effort to clean up the French capital’s air pollution problem. The city is also hosting its first “Zero Waste” festival from Thursday to Saturday.

Vallat, however, says that the bag ban is not a complete solution to the plastic problem.

“We think it may be a pioneering move,” Vallat said. “But [this ban] is in France only, and it’s a worldwide problem. Unfortunately we shall never be able to take all of this plastic out of the oceans.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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